Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Critical Debates In Design: Task 2: The Cooper Union Building Sign System

Last fall the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art opened its new building on its Cooper Square campus in New York. The building was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, and the structure has quickly become one of the city's landmarks. The famous graphic designer J. Abbott Miller is a Cooper alumni, therefore he knew the campus perfecly, in this manner he designed an unique program of signage and environmental graphics for the building that is fully integrated with the building's dynamic architecture. Miller describes his inspirations while he was working on Cooper building as post-war Italian architecture and design, which shows it self on the sign system of the structure. The new academic building located across the Cooper Union's original 1859 building, called the Foundation. Like Mayne's architectural design, Miller's way-finding graphics for the new building establish an aesthetic dialogue with the older structure.

The building's unique sign system designed by J. Abbott Miller, also an alumni of Cooper Union.
The Cooper Union's new building designed by the architect Thom Mayne.

To accomplish this innovative signage typography, designer Abbott Miller chose the typeface Foundry Gridnik, which resembles the lettering on the union's original building, Foundation. The original signage has a strong, angular look that suggests art, architecture and engineering. Gridnik type also has a tough and futuristic character that makes it especially sympathetic to the forms and materials of the new building. The graphics were also inspired by some of Miller's typographic explorations in his book "Dimensional Typography". The application of the signage typography has been physicalized in different ways, engaging multiple surfaces of the three-dimensional signs, appearing extruded across corners, or cut, extended and dragged through the material.

The original building of the union, constructed in 1859.
Miller had worked closely with the architects to integrate the signage system into the building. The structure canopy features optically extruded lettering that appears correct when seen in strict elevation, but distorts as the profile of the letter is dragged backwards in space. Miller's program of donor siganage is also uniquely integrated with the architecture. In this maner the lobby of the new building is a soaring sky-lit atrium that rises up nine stories through the building's core and is dominated by staircases. Therefore a dramatic installation recognizing major donors animates the underside of a descending stairwell, the signage comprised of over 80 blades that cascade down the underside of the stairs, echoing the stairs downward motion. The typography is engraved on the front, bottom and reverse surface of each blade, which turns those stairs rather a masterpiece.

A look from usage of the sign system at the stairs.

Each blade has dedicated to a donor.
In this approach of environmental sign system, the typography is in a perfect harmony with the achitecture of the building which might remind the audience Paula Scher's sign techniques. In my point of view it is extremely strong and proper for an interdiciplinary education environment. Therefore, Miller is a creative graphic designer who can combine typography with all design diciplines flawlessly. However the only weakness of this work is it may not orient with all kinds of people, it is more like a piece of art rather than a sign system that should navigate all kinds of users. But besides that the graphics of the stucture are innovative and inspiring which reflects Abbott Miller's endlessly interesting design thinking. Consequently the Cooper Union's sign sytem is a combination of historical and contemporary approaches and identifies the union's spirit at the building's structure.

Abbott Miller: Wikipedia,, Sub Page, Abbott Miller, Available from:
Eye Magazine : Official Web Page,, Sub Page, Eye Magazine featuring Abbott Miller, Available from:
The Cooper Union: Official Web Page,, Sub Page, The Cooper Union Buildings, Available from:
The Design Bureau: The Desgn of Conversation,, Featuring Abbott Miller, Available from:  
Pentegram, Official Web Page,, Sub Page, Pentegram Partners, Available from: 

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